Bristol-Portishead Rail Link

– in the House of Commons at 9:59 pm on 24th January 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]


I have just moved to Portishead and am amazed at how dreadful the...

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Minister without Portfolio, Co-Chair, Conservative Party 10:12 pm, 24th January 2005

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me this opportunity to raise an issue that is of immense importance to many of my constituents in Portishead. Over the past decade, and even longer, we have been subjected to a rollercoaster ride, where expectations for a passenger rail link have been raised only to be dashed soon after.

The consequence of the growth in housing and population in Portishead, combined with inadequate transport infrastructure, has resulted in what is now probably the most overcrowded cul-de-sac in Britain. If I may, I will outline the history of the railway line in question, the rate of population growth in Portishead, the current transport problems, the transport studies already undertaken, and a proposed solution. Much of what I intend to say is contained in the eloquent and succinct document produced by the Portishead railway action group, entitled "Reopening the Portishead line—an outline proposal", which I will give to the Minister at the end of this debate. I recommend that she adds it to her list of essential reading.

The original railway line came into being to meet one of Brunel's schemes to operate a steamship service to America. It was opened in 1870, was converted to standard gauge in 1880, and passenger services continued until 1964. In 2000, a freight facilities grant enabled a new spur to be constructed to serve royal Portbury dock, and the line to Bristol to be relaid for freight traffic. To put it in perspective, the basic length of track needing to be relaid from this spur to a platform at the allocated station site within the development area at Portishead is a mere 3.3 miles.

In the mid-1950s, Portishead had a population of about 8,000. By 1995, this had risen to some 15,000, and the current figure is around 18,000. Perhaps more importantly, however, recent redevelopment of the area around the dock has created the largest marina and housing development in the country, and the population is now predicted to rise to around 28,000—a startling increase.

The biggest problem is that Portishead has only one primary road route out of the town, the A369. Traffic heading for Bristol must cross the M5 at junction 19 at Portbury. The Greater Bristol strategic transport study described it as a "heavily trafficked junction", which many will consider to be an understatement. The study also explained that development growth in Portishead and on the royal Portbury dock site continues to place pressures on the performance of the partially signalled roundabout that forms the junction. Not only does the roundabout accommodate eight entrances and exits; there is high traffic use of the local access roads to the village of Portbury, which joins the A369 close to the motorway junction. Severe congestion is a regular occurrence, especially during the evening peak period.

Public transport in the area is limited, and bus services to Bristol are not well supported for a number of reasons—not least the journey time, which is heavily influenced by road congestion at key times. Employment opportunities in Portishead are limited as well. While provision for employment development has been made in east Portishead, the town as a whole is constrained by green belt requirements, so further expansion is restricted. The 2001 census showed that 63 per cent. of the town's adults in employment travelled out of Portishead to work. Many of those people will work in Bristol, but it is interesting to note that the percentage of Portishead residents travelling to work by car is higher than those in any of the other three north Somerset towns.

Into this complex environment have come a number of initiatives, studies and strategies. The introduction of local transport plans in 2000 was intended to reduce reliance on the private car, particularly for commuting purposes, and to make alternative forms of transport attractive and safe. Studies for both North Somerset council and the Government office for the south-west have recommended the introduction of passenger rail services to Portishead as a partial solution of the transport problem.

North Somerset council and Wessex Trains were having discussions with the Strategic Rail Authority about a bid for rail passenger partnership funding to reopen the Portishead line when the funding scheme was terminated early in 2003. Continued upheaval in the rail industry and the general funding shortfall seem to have put line reopenings out of the frame in the short term. Despite uncertainty over who will operate franchises after April 2006, however, there has been renewed activity in the promotion of community rail partnerships on several routes, including the local Severn Beach line.

The Portishead railway action group has carried out an extensive analysis of the possibility of extending the current service to Severn Beach and on to Portishead. It has shown that with a running time of 24 minutes to Portishead, trains arriving at Bristol Temple Meads on the Severn Beach line could continue to Portishead and return to Temple Meads without disrupting current schedules. The proposed service could be operated without conflicting with other passenger services at key junctions, and safety margins could be maintained.

The scheme delivers on all four regional transport strategy objectives. It would reduce the impact of transport on the environment, securing better access to work and creating a modern, efficient and integrated transport system. It would also support the regional planning guidance note 10 spatial strategy. What all of us find so difficult to understand is that a scheme which is so clearly needed, and which would meet so many of the Government's declared objectives, never seems to get off the ground. Despite the involvement of so many agencies, bodies and interested parties, there never seems to be the cohesion and momentum that are needed to make the change happen.

My aim in bringing this matter to the attention of the House and the Minister is to help create that momentum. Unless the situation is dealt with comprehensively, the quality of life for many residents of an expanding Portishead will diminish unnecessarily. If that happened, the real tragedy would be that it could have been prevented.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 10:19 pm, 24th January 2005

I begin by congratulating Dr. Fox on securing this debate and on providing an opportunity for the House to discuss the potential for reinstating passenger services on the line between Bristol and Portishead. The Government are aware that support exists for introducing passenger services on this line, which was re-opened in 2002 as far as Royal Portbury docks for freight traffic. The re-opening was secured with funding from the Strategic Rail Authority's freight facilities grant scheme. However, in order to serve Portishead with passenger services, the remaining three and a quarter miles of track would need to be reinstated and new stations at Portishead and elsewhere on the line would need to be built, along with car parking facilities and, preferably, interchanges with other transport modes. Even if the funding existed to achieve this necessary work, further obstacles exist that would need to be overcome.

The freight trains currently using the line operate at irregular intervals, depending on the particular assignment in hand. Introducing regular passenger services that are compatible with these irregular freight movements would be problematic. Infrastructure enhancements would be required, including, most notably, a large amount of additional signalling.

The cost of all of this work would be significant, and to date, no source of funding has been identified. The potential for rail passenger partnership funding was considered in 2001, following completion of a study by consultants Scott Wilson for North Somerset council. However, the SRA, which administered the fund, was concerned about several areas of weakness in the study—notably, that no account had been taken of the integration of passenger and freight services on the line, or of the need to accommodate new passenger services on the main line between Parsons Street Junction and Bristol Temple Meads. Furthermore, the SRA believed that more evidence of third-party support would be needed than the £1 million secured by the council. The SRA could not foresee a successful application being made under the rail passenger partnership scheme unless these issues were addressed. In the event, no official bid was submitted for funding.

Since that time, the SRA has remained in dialogue with North Somerset council and the Portishead rail action group, and it has undertaken a site visit and met those bodies to discuss the issues further. However, the overriding barrier remains the capital costs of the project, which Scott Wilson estimated as being between £5 million and £7.5 million, depending on the number of trains operating per hour. Although the SRA has not carried out its own assessment, it believes that those figures could constitute a huge underestimate. On top of those capital costs, an additional subsidy for the train operator would be needed to cover the ongoing operational costs. Such costs would not be covered by the income generated from fares, which would only recoup between 50 and 60 per cent. of the annual operating expense. If the Scott Wilson report's recommendation for two trains an hour were pursued, the operational costs could amount to some £2.5 million per annum. So the overall cost is likely to be more than £15 million—well above the report's estimate.

Any call on the SRA for support has to be backed up by a positive, value-for-money business case and linked with what can be afforded nationally. The rail industry's current priorities are focusing on maintaining the existing network and improving the performance and quality of existing services. So the reinstatement of the Portishead line to passenger traffic would rely on other avenues of funding being found. This could form the focus for stakeholders wishing to promote the project.

In the longer term, the reopening of lines may well have to be considered in various areas of the country where the current transport infrastructure's capacity is likely to be insufficient for the forecasted increase in demand. The SRA has a number of initiatives in hand in order to consider the future development required in each region. These could be taken forward in due course by Network Rail and the Department for Transport through implementation of the proposals in the White Paper "The Future of Rail".

Initially, the SRA is looking at how we can get the most out of the current network through application of its "Capacity Utilisation Policy", which was published in 2003. A series of individual route utilisation strategies are being taken forward, including one for the Great Western main line, the consultation draft for which was published earlier this month.

Photo of Mrs Valerie Davey Mrs Valerie Davey Labour, Bristol West

Those of us who are aware of the history of the line certainly welcome the possibility of passenger usage. We also recognise the cost that my hon. Friend has outlined and would like her assurance that the rail and road networks in the area will be considered together—as Dr. Fox suggested, they could be in need of enhancement in the future—when looking at the demand for passenger rail in the area.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am grateful for that intervention because it raises the important point about the role of the local authority and the region in identifying the priorities for transport in the area. That is why we have local transport plans and are considering regional prioritisation of particular projects. I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned for better transport in the area for many years, both as a Member of Parliament and as a former councillor.

Photo of Doug Naysmith Doug Naysmith Labour/Co-operative, Bristol North West

Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that Conservative-controlled North Somerset local authority has never committed any funds to the project, although it has commissioned studies? Does she think that it would be a good idea if the local authority were to commit some funds to it and would that assist the project in making progress?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Local stakeholders, including the council, have to show a commitment to such projects. When Conservative councils—and, indeed, shadow Ministers—call for massive cuts in public expenditure, it is not surprising that money cannot be found for such projects.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Minister without Portfolio, Co-Chair, Conservative Party

The hijacking of this debate to make party political points is not something that I expect in an Adjournment debate and is in poor taste. However, my more general point is that the problems are indicative of a lack of forethought in the planning process. The Government insisted on more housing and there has been a big increase—in fact, the biggest housing development in the country is in the area—but no prior thought was given to the transport infrastructure. How bad does it have to get before it becomes a priority?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

As I indicated to the hon. Gentleman earlier, we look to the region and the local council to come up with their plan for local transport. That is why we have moved to local transport plans instead of a wish list of projects that local councils and regions want. We are working in partnership with local councils and the regions and we expect them to work with their local stakeholders to ensure that they produce priorities that have the support of local stakeholders. The hon. Gentleman suggested earlier that the council had not fully engaged in taking forward the project. My point was that we have to find the funding for such projects in the context of local, regional and national priorities.

In conjunction with their capacity utilisation policy work the Strategic Rail Authority is also carrying out a series of regional planning assessments, which will consider the need for developing rail services over a five to 20-year horizon. Those assessments will cover each English planning region and will consider the function of the railway within current and future land use transport systems, and its role in supporting the economic and wider development objectives of local, regional, devolved and central Government.

The RPA for south-west England is due to commence this spring, with publication expected at the end of this year. Local stakeholders, including local transport and planning authorities, will be consulted throughout its development. The final outputs will include the identification of the key markets to be served by rail; a prioritised set of interventions for further examination that the SRA considers to be deliverable and realistic; and regional plans for the delivery of wider national SRA policies. The outputs are intended to provide a strategic framework for more detailed planning work and to answer the question of whether a proposed scheme has a strategic fit with the SRA's plans for a particular part of the network. The regional planning assessment will highlight where follow-up work needs to be commissioned by the SRA and rail industry partners and, where appropriate, in conjunction with stakeholders.

In the Bristol area, such work will be complemented by the greater Bristol strategic transport study. That has been commissioned by the Department for Transport and is being taken forward by the Government office for the south-west to address current and future strategic transport needs specifically in the greater Bristol area up to 2031. It will build on the south-west area multi-modal study, which reported in May 2002, and will contribute to the formulation of regional spatial strategies, the identification of priorities for investment in the regional transport strategy, and the next round of local transport plans. In addition to forecasting the growth in general travel demand, the study will also examine specifically the future demand for heavy rail services, as well as establishing the preliminary business case for any rail schemes.

Funding for the study is shared among seven organisations, including the four local councils and the South West of England Regional Development Agency. Atkins was appointed as the study consultants in 2003 and will produce a report in June 2005, which will make recommendations for a range of strategies to be taken forward.

In summary, I can offer no assurance that a passenger service will be reinstated on the Bristol-Portishead line in the foreseeable future. The first step towards that would be for the significant funding required for such a scheme to be identified and secured. However, initiatives are being taken, or are planned to begin shortly, to consider in detail what is required in the Bristol region for future transport development, including heavy rail. Those areas of work are being conducted with the active involvement of local stakeholders and will allow solutions to be developed cohesively and coherently. When the conclusions from those aspects of work are known, the potential for new passenger services on the Portishead line will be better understood, and the issue of funding can be considered by the project sponsors on a more informed basis.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.